Why Exceptionalism Matters
America is exceptional, despite what our current president may think.
Asked whether America was an exceptional country, Mr. Obama famously replied that every country is exceptional. North Korea is exceptional? Castro's Cuba is fine? Zimbabwe is great? Really?
Obama's response accords with the left's theory of universalism, whereby one's general allegiance to mankind outweighs that to any particular nation, including one's own.
There are several major difficulties with that theory. From a practical perspective, universalism is a dead end -- quite literally -- because there are always powerful adversaries who do not share one's soft-hearted faith in universal brotherhood. The left's goals of unilateral disarmament and global equality play right into the hands of these powerful adversaries. Only a nation that is incredibly naïve or blatantly suicidal would lower its guard in the presence of rising nation-states like China and fanatical terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda.
There is a second difficulty. Even if a mechanism could be devised to assure universal cooperation -- an absurd hope -- one has to ask whether egalitarianism would be desirable. As philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre recognized, such a condition of uniformity would produce a deathly condition of permanent malaise. In his book Whose Justice, Which Rationality?, MacIntyre refers to "a certain type of rootless cosmopolitanism, the condition of those aspiring to be at home anywhere" (p. 388). That sounds a lot like Obama.
Adherents of cosmopolitanism consider themselves citizens of the world, and Obama is a perfect example of this type. With an ethos based on nothing more than relativism and pragmatism, they scorn all particular traditions. They are not guided by longstanding assumptions and alliances, nor do they embrace any single conception of human nature or any definite idea of culture.
What they do embrace, and this adamantly, is the rejection of moral and cultural distinctions that would lead one to believe that a particular set of values is superior to any other. But in this they are, as MacIntyre calls them, "citizens of nowhere" (p. 388) who are incapable of experiencing life other than in abstract terms (thus Obama's famous remoteness). Like so many grandiose orators in the progressive tradition, their idiom is grounded in the "ideal-typical," not the human and particular. Their impulse is always toward regimentation and control, not liberation.
For these citizens of nowhere, any assertion that certain cultural practices are more "productive" or "healthy" than others is rejected out of hand. Except, that is, the cultural practice of refusing to distinguish what is productive or healthy or, taking it one step farther, "good." Yet it is obvious that some societies are more productive and healthy than others, and what is most galling to the left is the sheer excellence of Anglo-American civilization and especially America -- not just its remarkable success in material terms, but its achievement of an extraordinary degree of liberty and general welfare.
That success is hardly accidental. It is the product of an unprecedented advance in human civilization. Never before in history has a large population enjoyed the rights, material wealth, and security that America achieved in the 20th century. That success, shared to some extent by other Western democracies, is now spreading to other regions of the globe that have embraced the powerful ideals of the inherent worth of the individual and the potential for happiness under capitalism. Those simple and liberating ideals are what made America an exceptional nation. And because they are such powerful ideals and threaten to spread beyond America to aspiring peoples everywhere, they attract the special enmity of the left.
If there is any doubt of the left's antipathy toward the idea of American exceptionalism, a quick look at required reading for college freshmen should clear it up. Pick up the Heath Anthology of American Literature vol. C (1865-1910), a standard college text, and in introductory sections you will learn much about the "circumstances and achievements" of women, blacks, Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, and immigrants during the post-Civil War period. But you will not find an introductory section devoted to the achievement of capitalism (nor to males of European descent) during that extraordinary period of rising American wealth and influence. Nor will you find a discussion of the manner in which America in a few short decades extended individual rights and opportunity to all of its people -- an accomplishment unique in world history.
What is more important from the perspective of the left is to "prove" that American power and affluence were achieved at the expense of victimized groups. That way it is not necessary to admit the obvious: that the nation's great success is grounded in free-market capitalism combined with constitutional guarantees of liberty and property rights. And that way, it is possible to go on believing that a nation's well-being does not depend on a particular tradition of values.
What the left actually believes is that America is a nation in which success comes, always, at the expense of some exploited group. Ironically, they believe this to be the case in every country in which capitalism has succeeded. Only in the prison-states of the former Soviet Union or present-day Cuba and Venezuela do they think that people are free. As long as liberty is repressed -- and "the rich" are taxed "fairly" -- the left is happy. The loss of freedom is just collateral damage.
For the left, America is an exceptionally bad country. But that is not the opinion of most Americans, and it was not that of our Founders.
In his Farewell Address, George Washington thanked his "beloved country" for the opportunities it had afforded him. He stated his profound desire that the nation continue to be governed by its Constitution so as to merit "the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it." That does not sound like a president who believed that America was exploitative and unfair.
Washington believed that as long as America remained "virtuous," and by this he meant true to its particular moral and philosophical traditions, its future greatness was assured. America's advantages were many -- geographical, agricultural, and cultural -- but her greatest strengths were moral and intellectual. It was the religious traditions and moral nature of her people -- and their tradition of freedom and the rule of law ("good laws under a free government") -- that made America exceptional.
No wonder our current president regards America as no more exceptional than Bolivia (less, in fact). To admit America's greatness would require him to admit the value of all he despises: that it is capitalism, individual liberty, and the rule of law that has made America great.
For Obama, America is just another land, like so many in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, in which sheep-like masses unaccustomed to democracy make do with scraps from the table of tyrants. It is also a land in which those who still believe in the exceptionality of their country, like those Tea Party patriots so reviled by the left, must be corrected and attacked. There is no talk of a great and prosperous nation from this administration, and no support for the virtues that Washington believed in. There is only a raw instinct for power at the cost of individual liberty.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books on American culture, including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).